Seeking edge, 'Skins eye special teams

With offense unsettled, other units counted on

Pro Football

October 04, 2002|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - Having struggled to post a combined 17 points in their past two games, the Washington Redskins may have to cash in on their returns.

With instability at quarterback - coach Steve Spurrier hasn't budged from his decision to announce tomorrow whether Danny Wuerffel or Patrick Ramsey will start - and the uncertain play of the defense, Washington's special teams may be the most potent threat the Redskins can muster against the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at the Coliseum.

The biggest advantage may be in punt returns, where Washington (1-2) is ranked third in the NFL with an average return of 18.7 yards. The Titans are ranked last in the league in punt coverage at 29.7 yards.

"Special teams are a big part of the game, and returns are the first offensive play of the series," said fullback Rock Cartwright, a member of the Redskins' special teams. "So we have to get out there and get off to a good start. That's something we've been focusing on."

Tennessee (1-3) has struggled in covering punt returns, although punter Craig Hentrich is fifth in the AFC with an average of 44.9 yards.

The Titans, who had gone six years without allowing a punt return for a touchdown before this season, have already given up three in 2002, including two in the first 5 minutes, 24 seconds of last Sunday's 52-25 thrashing by the Oakland Raiders.

"You can be rest assured that Tennessee will be practicing hard on hanging the ball and covering kicks this week," said Redskins special teams coach Mike Stock, who noted Oakland's second touchdown return was aided by two illegal blocks that went uncalled. "They had some unusual things happen to them in that game against Oakland. They're going to work hard on their coverage, no question about it."

Tennessee's porous coverage could shift the spotlight to Washington's Jacquez Green. The fifth-year wide receiver seems to have accepted his role as a punt return specialist. His average of 16.6 yards places him third in the league and first in the NFC.

In the second game of the season, Green scored on a 90-yard run in the second quarter of a 37-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

"I don't play that much on offense," said Green, who has just as many touchdowns as the Redskins' offense in the past two games. "So I try to use special teams as a way to make something happen and contribute to the team."

On the flip side, Washington's punt coverage has been less than stellar. Although Bryan Barker ranks fourth in the NFC in punting average at 45.2 yards, opponents are averaging 13.8 yards per return - ranking the Redskins' punt coverage 28th in the league.

The Titans rank 14th in punt returns, but they suffered a key loss when Derrick Mason separated his left shoulder against Oakland on Sunday.

Mason, who was just the ninth player in NFL history to record back-to-back seasons with more than 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2000 and 2001, won't play Sunday and is expected to miss at least four weeks.

But Barker, who as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, was on the receiving end of Mason's 65-yard return for a touchdown on a free kick after a safety in an AFC championship game, said he won't breathe easy until he sees Mason either in street clothes or in the owner's box.

"I'm not convinced that Derrick won't be playing," Barker said. "Sometimes the best players find a way to get out on the field. If he's out there, I wouldn't expect anything less of him."

Even if Mason doesn't play, Stock said Tennessee has reloaded with rookie John Simon, a slashing-type returner who averaged 14.7 yards on three returns this season.

"We know that they're good, and no matter who they put back there, they're going to have efficient people," Stock said. "We've just got to do our job."

Next for Redskins

Opponent:Tennessee Titans

Site:The Coliseum, Nashville, Tenn.

When:Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio:Chs. 45, 5/WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (106.7 FM)

Line:Titans by 5 1/2

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